Tribune analysis: Cops who pile up complaints routinely escape discipline

Activists bearing posters of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy protest police treatment of residents during a demonstration in front of the mayor’s City Hall office in February 2015. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

This is a story that Jeremy Gorner and I wrote from police complaint data that Gorner got from an FOI request. Read the story, Tribune analysis: Cops who pile up complaints routinely escape discipline

Crowdsourced usage help and observations for data visualizations

This is my pitch for the Media Ideation Fellowship.

Project Description

This project would provide a platform for user-contributed usage instructions (“move the slider to the right to see the data for different years” or observations (“wow, DC has so many charter schools”) for web and print-based data visualizations. The project would help make data visualizations and their insights more accessible and provide a body of feedback for developers and journalists to create more usable visualizations. Through a public API for web applications and QR codes and short URLs for print, journalists and developers can integrate the platform into their visualizations.

What problem or issue are you trying to address with this project?

We live in a culture which increasingly fetishizes policy decisions that are “data-driven”.  From the future of publicly-funded education in Chicago to the disconnection of residents from city infrastructure in Detroit, data fills a prominent role in the discourse around issues that profoundly impact our lives. Certainly, data has always driven decision-making by policy makers and evaluation of proposals by the public, and it’s an important part of civic process. The danger is for data to take on a magical quality instead of being framed as a tool that can be used, and abused, in the service of civic problem solving. If publics are to leverage data, we must be empowered consumers of this information.


While researching information about the Chicago teachers strike, I came upon this data visualization about the growth in charter schools, I came upon this visualization:

While a careful reading of the instructions could have told me that this was a map of the US and that moving the slider shows the change in the number of charter schools over time, I just wanted to dive in and was confused. Having more human instructions that say “Hey, this is a map of the US” or “move the slider” and observations like “look how charter schools grew in D.C.  That documentary Waiting for Superman talked a lot about that” seemed like something that should exist.

Independent study

This is my independent study proposal.  It’s a little messy, but I’m posting it here to get feedback and to connect with other journalists and others invested in communities who have similar concerns about media narratives across social boundaries.

There is great focus in the Medill curriculum on audience. However, information and cultural narratives often gets transmitted beyond the intended audience of a story. Furthermore, the experiences and perspectives of a reporter, the community being covered in a story, and the audience of the story can be dramatically different with regards to race, class and other dynamics that divide a city like Chicago. For instance, does media coverage of youth violence in Chicago help lead to solutions to end violence or does it only solidify incomplete perceptions of different groups of youth and different neighborhoods in the city?

How is the way a story is reported by journalists or interpreted by the audience mediated by these divisions? Are there stories whose impact spans different communities in Chicago? How does one report these stories in a way that resonates across social divisions? How do current publishing models limit broad-reaching resonance of a story? How might emerging models better reach socially segregated audiences? How do people who don’t consume traditional news media get information to answer questions and solve problems in their lives? Can reporting help erode social divisions?

This independent study will explore these questions through monitoring and analysis of the Chicago media ecosystem and documented conversations (meta-reporting) with professional journalists, community-based media and community advocacy or activists groups.

While my experience at Medill has thus far helped me build a solid foundation of reporting skills, I feel like I am not much closer to understanding how journalism can help meet the information needs of communities in overcoming challenges facing them. This is an important personal, academic and professional goal for me and I feel this study can bring me closer developing vision for new models of journalism.

Proposed Syllabus

Required Reading

Students will be expected to consume media from across the breadth of Chicago’s media ecosystem every week from papers like the Tribune or Sun-Times, to broadcast nightly news, to public media such as WBEZ’s 848, to independent media such as The Chicago Reporter, local papers such as the Skyline or Austin Weekly News and blogs and Twitter feeds from community groups and members. Special attention should be paid to responses to media including comments, letters to the editor and blogging about media coverage.


All assignments will be submitted as public blog posts that will allow other Medill students, instructors and readers in the community at-large to comment on the student’s observations.

Every week students must submit a 300-word or longer response to a story from the student’s readings in the Chicago media ecosystem. The response should explain how explain how the story either effectively or problematically frames a community issue for different groups of people across a variety of experience or how the reporter acknowledges or balances her personal experience and culturally-mediated perceptions (or fails to) in reporting the story.

Throughout the quarter, the student will have conversations with professional journalists, independent media makers, community media organizations, and community action groups about reporting stories across different social experiences. The student will be required to approve the people to be covered with the faculty advisor twice in the quarter.

Students must submit five stories documenting these conversations. Print stories should be at least 500 words long. Two of the five stories must be multimedia stories (audio, photo slideshow, video or other interactive) of 2 minutes or comparable depth for non-linear formats.


The faculty mentor will evaluate media responses based on the clarity of argument, consideration of multiple perspectives and relevance and uniqueness of the story and media outlet selected.

The stories documenting conversations with participants in Chicago’s media ecosystem will be evaluated for quality, originality, relevance and media production in a manner similar to second quarter MSJ reporting courses.

The mentor should post responses as comments on the blog to help encourage other responses.

Week 1 Conversation proposal for weeks 1-5 due
Media response post due
Week 2 Media response post due
Story #1 due
Week 3 Media response post due
Week 4 Media response post due
Story #2 due
Week 5 Media response post due
Conversation proposal for weeks 6-10 due
Week 6 Media response post due
Story #3 due
Week 7 Media response post due
Week 8 Media response post due
Story #4 due
Week 9 Media response post due
Week 10 Story #5 due

Other people’s stories

In a seminar last week, I was surprised that so many of my classmates expressed an interest in reporting stories about “social justice” or the “underprivileged.”  On one hand, this is awesome because its so much better than wanting to report alarmist crime stories or about the socialist conspiracy to take away American freedom.  On the other hand, its really easy to report the stories of people with whom you don’t share experiences in a way that is patronizing or reinforces broadly held misconceptions or your own misconceptions.

While I don’t think my classmate’s experience with class are homogeneous, I think its safe to say that  many haven’t experienced extreme poverty.  My own experience is one that is firmly middle class.  Why then, do I and others have  such a fascination with the “underprivileged” and their stories?  I’ve struggled with this question, and the best explanation I can come up with for myself is that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been sensitive to unfairness and cruelty, so stories about these things, which often involve class or race have always resonated with me.

But what does my attention do?  What does my reporting of other people’s stories of unfairness do?  This is a question I’m trying to answer as I move through my graduate program and one that I hope to raise with my classmates.  I think that we need to think about reporting stories about poverty or other social injustice not just because they’re powerful but because we can imagine some transformative outcome from retelling the story.  More and more I’m feeling like concerned middle-class or wealthy people need to stop fixating on simply “helping” those with different resources and mobilities and examine how the practice of being middle-class or wealthy perpetuates unfair systems.

When I told a friend I was going to journalism school, she said that she felt like it was really important that journalists started looking at helping (or maybe just moving out of the way so that) people can tell their own stories.  I think this idea is important.  Whether there still needs to be space for telling other people’s stories really depends on the outcomes we imagine.  Hopefully I can get a better answer to this question in the future.

The photo that goes with this post is from a screenshot from a video exploring teen violence by the Community TV Network’s Hard Cover News team.  It’s part of a project called Chain of Change that I found out about because my friend Chiara worked with it as part of her Internship at Beyondmedia.

The Chain of Change project’s website describes the project like this:

The Chain of Change project organizes youth activists to individually and collectively strategize how to end violence by exposing its roots through the creation of media. Beyondmedia distributes video cameras to youth groups, who create short videos that challenge individuals to think about their own roles in this struggle.

I think it’s a really great example of people affected by a particular problem, in this case youth affected by violence, are telling their own stories to help meet community needs.

nonlinear digital music narratives

As the start of my graduate program grows nearer.  I feel like I need to talk and think about what I want to do with journalism more concretely.  Last night in conversation, I mentioned that I was interested in exploring how the web and other new media could tell stories outside of the linear narrative structure of a news article or a video documentary.  How does the producer’s or audience’s bias get subverted when the audience can pick multiple paths through the narrative? , Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any examples of this, but Josh referenced Hyperfiction as a way that this is done with creative writing and how it creates a different, intensly immersive experience for the reader.

Working on a mix tape lately, and getting my record player working again, I’ve been thinking about the linear path through which albums or mixes are constructed.  Sometimes this can be narrative like a concept album, for example Prince Paul’s Prince of Thieves, or it could be more subtle in a record like Springstein’s Nebraska.  While you could certainly play songs on an LP or CD in a different order, digital audio files make this even easier.  Unfortunately, it seems like much of the focus on the benefits of digital audio has been with regards to distribution instead of the possibilities for constructing sets of connected songs with multiple paths through them.  I often read something years later that makes me re-think a Defiance, Ohio song or the songs in relation to each other.  Also, the Allied Media Conference’s recent call for track proposals has made me think about grouping and connecting information.  I also think of the recommended EQ diagram in the In Utero liner notes.  I think it would be pretty cool to release an “album” of songs digitally, with separate recommended orders of the songs and liner notes that describe the different paths through the songs.

Photo by Great Beyond via Flickr.